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Science in the Summer Brings Hands-On Fun to Reservations

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Science in the Summer 2016
As part of the "Science in the Summer" program, spectrUM and SciNation set up science stations for children attending the 2016 Arlee Celebration, a powwow on the Flathead Indian Reservation. | Leslie Stewart

More than 13,000 children participated in a hands-on science education program this summer at museums, science centers, libraries, Boys & Girls Clubs, and – in a first for the GSK Science in the Summer™ program – powwows and community centers on Native American reservations.

The Flathead Indian Reservation, one of Montana’s seven reservations, is home to the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d’Oreille tribes. The reservation’s schools serve 4,500 students, 1,400 of whom are native. Bringing STEM education into the community in a culturally relevant way is a major goal of the hands-on science center known as the spectrUM Discovery Center that is part of the University of Montana at Missoula, and a partner organization on the Flathead reservation, known as SciNation, said Jessie Herbert, spectrUM’s STEM education program manager.

“We primarily try to do this by connecting [young students] with local and native role models who do science as their education or career,” Herbert said. “This was also how we approached the physical science curriculum from ‘Science in the Summer.’”

Drawing upon a long history of bringing science programming to the Flathead community, spectrUM and SciNation participated in “Science in the Summer” for the first time in 2016, leading more than 2,200 adults and children, 1,720 of whom were native, in science experiments in Montana over the summer.

“Science in the Summer,” sponsored by GSK, a global health care company, and administered by AAAS, is a free science education program. “Its purpose is to introduce science to children, mitigate the ‘summer slide,’ and build goodwill for science,” said AAAS Project Director Betty Calinger. “With science centers and museums and other community-based organizations as our partners, AAAS is able to bring this model program to children in urban, rural, and suburban locations across the United States.”

The program began in the Philadelphia area more than 30 years ago. It reached more than 125,000 children through regional programs in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and the Washington, D.C. metro area, before expanding across the nation in 2015, a move AAAS organized and implemented. In addition to Montana and Maine, “Science in the Summer” partners hosted programs this year in Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C.

SpectrUM and SciNation brought the “Science in the Summer” curriculum to 10 different sites in Montana, including free summer lunch centers and powwows in the Flathead reservation communities of Arlee and Elmo. More than 1,100 people participated in the program at the Arlee powwow alone, Herbert said.

While spectrUM and SciNation hosted several summer school programs with more structured activities for latter elementary school and middle school students, the lunch sites and powwows had a much more casual atmosphere and drew children of all ages to stations on different scientific subjects, Herbert said. “Many of them had their parents with them, so parents were also guiding and learning and exploring with them as well,” she added.

Particularly popular among attendees were experiments on circuitry and electromagnetism, but “there was something really for everybody,” Herbert said.

An experiment on sound and vibration using simple materials – a bowl filled with water – was “amazingly popular,” Herbert said. “I think the adults really appreciated that too, because it’s something that they saw that they could replicate at home.”

More exotic scientific tools were popular, as well.

“Our van de Graaff generator was a huge hit, of course,” Herbert said.

Constructing magnetic “battlebots” for dueling was the highlight of “Science in the Summer” for many children on Maine’s Pleasant Point reservation, home to the Passamaquoddy tribe, said Trudi Plummer, the director of education at the Maine Discovery Museum in Bangor.

In addition to “Science in the Summer” programs at the museum, a rural library collective, and a Bangor elementary school, Plummer and her colleagues brought hands-on activities to the isolated Pleasant Point reservation, 100 miles northeast of Bangor.

“It’s literally a land’s end,” Plummer said of the reservation, which is bounded by Canada to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. Students do not get a lot of hands-on science experiments in their schools, and their rural location means “they don’t really have a lot of options to even invite people to come and do outreach,” she said.

The students, mostly third through fifth graders, were “super-duper excited” to participate in “Science in the Summer” at the Sipayik Boys and Girls Club, Plummer said. Some 50 children took part in the program on the reservation, Plummer added, and about 250 more participated in “Science in the Summer” at the other sites throughout Maine.

While visiting the reservation, Plummer and her colleagues were unexpectedly able to reach even more children outside of the official “Science in the Summer” programs, thanks to existing relationships they had cultivated through years of scientific outreach, she said.

When the director of Pleasant Point’s Head Start preschool program reached out, Plummer and colleagues adapted the “Science in the Summer” magnets activity for a group of four-year-olds. Instead of pitting magnetic battlebots against one another, the preschoolers played with cardboard fairies and castles that could interact using magnets, which demonstrates that different materials behave differently not because they have a choice – but because they are made that way, Plummer said.

“Minds were blown away,” Plummer said. “We worked really, really, really, really hard to make sure they understand that this isn’t a magic trick. It’s not magic, it’s science.”